Prominent Catholics around the world have mostly lauded Pope Francis' landmark interview
with the Jesuit publication La Civilta Cattolica, but some remain perplexed, deeply apprehensive, and quietly upset by his remarks.
Catholic commentators have generally argued that much of the mainstream media has misinterpreted the 12,000-word interview by viewing it as a radical departure from previous pontiffs, with Francis more aware of current secular mores.
Urgent: Should the Pope Change the Catholic Church?
The truth, these commentators insist, is that nothing has changed except for a shift in emphasis.
Special reference has been made to Pope Francis' comments that the Church "cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage, and the use of contraceptive methods."
Such issues need to be spoken of in context, Francis said, and it is not necessary to address them "all the time."
The Church's pastoral ministry, he said, "cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently," but should focus on the essentials and "find a new balance."
Otherwise, the Pope warned, "even the moral edifice of the Church is likely to fall like a house of cards, losing the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel."
In short, Church commentators argue, Francis was calling for the Church's moral teachings to be discussed within the context of a lived encounter with Jesus Christ. He also said the teachings should be sourced from the gospel, rather than addressed in the abstract or in the context merely of the natural law. Benedict XVI, they point out, said something similar in 2006.
Various priests contacted by Newsmax have also viewed the interview in the same way, though not without fault. The Rev. Conor Donnelly, a medical doctor and theologian of the Opus Dei prelature, described it as "beautiful, simple, and profound."
He said the Pope speaks "with heart, reflecting a Christlike humanity," and that although academically he's not a John Paul II or Benedict XVI, Francis "is not short on intellectual qualities." But Donnelly said "only people who pray can grasp what the Pope talks about."
The Rev. Richard Cipolla, a traditionalist priest from Fairfield, Conn., said he values greatly the Pope's insistence that the mercy of God lies at the heart of the gospel message. But he wondered how it was possible for the Church to imitate Jesus in saying "go and sin no more" when society today has "abolished or relegated to a dark past" the very idea of sin.
"If the Church only preaches mercy without preaching the deadly nature of sin, then she is not true to the mission given to her by Christ," he said.
Another priest, known to be from the orthodox wing of the Church but who preferred not to be identified, said Francis is a "wonderfully attractive figure in so many ways, and he's effective."
But like many, he said the Pope needs to realize that no matter what he says, the media will try to twist his words. "We have to give him time," he said. "He’s still learning the ropes on how to deal with the media."
Others are significantly more critical. The American theologian Michael Novak said the Pope's use of words like "obsession" "hurts the faithful who have even risked their lives" to protect life. He said the "tone" of the interview is "likely to be harmful."
"It puts many Christians on the defensive, just when they are attacked," Novak told the Italian newspaper La Stampa. "At the same time, it encourages criticism against the Church by her declared adversaries."
Roger McCaffrey, president of the publishing house Roman Catholic Books, believes "the Catholic left, and the entire political left, are beside themselves with glee" after the Pope's interview.
"Now they have a Jesuit who is, to them, beginning to sound like the late Cardinal Martini of Milan," he said, referring to the Italian Jesuit cardinal, renowned for his liberal leanings, who died last year.
"He appears to refer to two of the most evil developments in human history: the mass organized killing of the unborn, half a billion in number, and the juggernaut of political victories since Obama took office in 2008 that attempt to normalize and mainstream abnormal sexual behavior as 'issues' that can be over-stressed," McCaffrey told Newsmax.
"What that means to the Catholic left is that their issues may now be stressed," he continued. "What it means to the rest of the left is that the Church is in disarray, and that Rome does not have the bishops' backs.'"
Those who would rather not criticize the Pope publicly have been similarly forthright in their criticisms of the interview in private. “We all knew he was a liberal, but I had no idea he was so partisan,” one prominent Catholic in Rome told Newsmax.
He believes that Francis is the "apotheosis of everything that was wrong about the Second Vatican Council."
The council reforms of the 1960s tried to remove barriers between the Church and the secular world, but critics say the council's teachings were hijacked by liberals, leading to a sharp decline in Church attendance and vocations in much of the West.
"What priests are telling me privately is that they are 'very disturbed' or 'wish the Pope would stop talking,'" a source with close connections to three cardinals told Newsmax, adding that others are also perplexed.
They argue that even before the interview, abortion, contraception, and same-sex marriage were hardly ever mentioned in homilies. "I have not talked to a single priest who is cheering the interview," the source said. "They will never allow themselves to be quoted on the record, but they are out there, all over the U.S.
"To deny that this interview has wounded the flock is to dissemble," he said. "I think the Holy Father should consider issuing clarifications."
Vatican officials have been reluctant to comment on the interview, including American Cardinal Raymond Burke. Well known for his firm defense of life, Burke, who heads the Church's highest court at the Vatican, said he is not giving interviews at this time.
Urgent: Should the Pope Change the Catholic Church?
Others speaking on background fear that if the pontificate continues for too long, the Church will suffer greatly with a further decline in vocations to the priesthood, both in quality and number.
Whether that happens or not, this interview has exposed some significant fault-lines in the Church — ones that Pope Francis will have to work hard to heal.
Edward Pentin began reporting on the Vatican as a correspondent with Vatican Radio in 2002. He has covered the Pope and the Holy See for a number of publications, including Newsweek and The Sunday Times.
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